While the government and media in France are still dealing with the scope of the intelligence failure that preceded the wave of terrorist attacks that killed 129 people and injured 352 here on Friday night, the army and security forces have swung into action against Islamic State targets in Syria. In tandem, they have carried out wide-scale raids and arrested Islamist suspects around France.
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The main question is how the assailants, who as it turns out are French and Belgian citizens, could have organized and amassed a cache of weapons over a considerable period and then launched the series of attacks. The unhindered attacks may have been carried out on the direct orders of Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL, in Syria.
Since Friday night, French police have carried out about 150 raids in Paris and in at least five other locations in the country, arresting dozens of suspects. In one raid in Lyon, weapons were also seized, including a Kalashnikov rifle, a missile launcher and combat vests.
The sites where raids were carried out are known to the police as places where Islamists were living and operating for an extended period before last weekend’s attacks. Searches and arrests were carried out in the southern city of Toulouse in an area where Mohammed Merah lived. Merah was the terrorist who killed four Jews at a Jewish school, as well as three French soldiers, in two separate incidents nearly four years ago.
The fact that France's security forces are only acting now against suspects only reinforces the questions being raised about the country's security policy in recent months.
For example, it was already known – after the terrorist attacks at Charlie Hebdo magazine and at the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in Paris last January – that a group of local Islamists existed, with weapons and a readiness to commit terrorist acts against French citizens.
The most talked-about failure is the decision to allow Salah Abdeslam, a 26-year-old Belgian who French intelligence officials believe participated in the attacks, to go on his way just hours after the Paris attacks, after being stopped together with two other men in a car headed in the direction of the Belgian border. The occupants of the car were let go, according to authorities, because their names did not appear on the suspects' lists. It is not clear if they are now in France or Belgium.
Abdeslam’s older brother, Ibrahim, was one of the terrorists who blew himself up in the attack on the Bataclan concert hall in Paris’ 11th arrondissement. Another brother, Mohammed, who was also apparently involved in planning and carrying out the attacks, was arrested in Belgium.
Identification of the Adesalam brothers followed the release of the name of another of the terrorists, Omar Ismael Mostefai, a resident of a Paris suburb who blew himself up in one of the attacks and is now considered France’s first suicide bomber. He was known to the police for his involvement in criminal activities, but not as someone with connections to jihadist groups.
As additional names of the seven terrorist attackers who were killed in Paris Friday night are released, the number of questions also grows. One of the attackers, Samy Amimour, a 28-year-old French citizen, had already been accused of terror activity three years ago and was the subject of surveillance, but he manage to slip away and act freely despite an international arrest warrant issued against him.
More questions about the surveillance capabilities of the Western intelligence agencies have to do with the fact that the fingerprints of one of the suicide bombers (who was carrying a Syrian passport belonging to one Ahmad al-Mohammed) matched the prints of a man who arrived in Greece last October as a Syrian refugee. This information will likely increase the suspicion and hostility towards Syrian refugees arriving in Europe in recent months, and will serve right-wing politicians who call not to accept them as they may be harboring ISIS operatives.
Terror incidents that took place in recent years in France, Belgium and Denmark were carried out by attackers who were inspired by ISIS and Al-Qaida, but the attacks were apparently not initiated from the outside.
Information now coming from Western intelligence services indicates that the individuals who carried out the coordinated attacks on Friday had been in touch with the ISIS leadership in Syria in advance of the assaults, and received assistance and advice from the organization.
Such a prospect raises concerns that ISIS, which up to now has focused its efforts on operations in the Middle East, in Iraq and Syria and more recently in Sinai, has taken the strategic decision to carry out major terrorist attacks in the West as well, mainly in those countries that are part of the military coalition countering ISIS. The crash of the Russian passenger jet at the end of last month over Sinai, apparently downed by bomb that ISIS placed on the plane, may also reflect this change in strategy.
But activating terrorist cells from a distance also provides intelligence agencies with the opportunity to intercept messages and to identify potential perpetrators before they attack. This could help supplement the sparse details the intelligence agencies currently have on Muslim volunteers from Europe who have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq and have then returned home – along with the much larger number of ISIS supporters in those countries who have not gone to the Middle East but are prepared to serve the organization inside Europe.
Attacks on Raqqa
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned on Monday that additional terrorist attacks are being planned in France and around Europe, adding that as part of the state of emergency that President Francois Hollande has declared, administrative detentions of Islamist activists will be carried out. This is yet another indication that intelligence services have not managed to amass enough information on suspects to lead to arrests and to trials according to regular judicial proceedings, and that many hundreds of these individuals are currently moving about freely in France.
Hours before the round of arrests began, France also saw fit to attack the very heart of ISIS in the largest French air force attack so far, during the past year and a half of aerial bombings in Syria and Iraq. Dozens of Rafale and Mirage 2000 fighter planes took off from bases in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, dropping 20 bombs on the ISIS command center in Raqqa in southeast Syria, the French announced. Raqqa, which has been controlled by the Islamists for about three years, is one of ISIS’ major strongholds; a large number of prisoners is held there and it is also the organization's center for civil administration.
Weapons depots and training basis, apparently as well as ISIS offices, were also hit by French forces. The assaults were carried out in coordination with the United States, which is leading the anti-ISIS international coalition. For the first time, American warplanes launched attacks on mobile oil-storage facilities in western Iraq, in an effort to cut off one of ISIS’ main sources of revenue.
Meanwhile, in a television interview, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve – who may be forced to take responsibility for the intelligence failures – was quick to report on the aerial assaults as part of France’s response to “the organized acts of war of the barbarians inside Syria.” ISIS, he said, “is organizing attacks along with individuals in Belgium who are not known to our intelligence services and is inciting them to act on French territory.” It is “a new reality,” he added.
What is new is not just ISIS’ level of organization and its preparedness to carry out larger attacks in the West, but also the recognition on France’s part that it needs to respond accordingly.